Admitedly, here are some fairly awful people out there. People who cheat, are strangers to the truth, take advantage of vulnerable people and abuse others physically, emotionally, financially and and other way you might imagine. The vast majority of people who exhibit this behaviour are men but there are women amongst that group too. However, not all of these people are narcissists but just where do we draw the line?
Firstly, a digression. I have been against general labeling of people since I started practice many years ago. While it is important for diagnosis through the DSM (mostly to ensure payment from managed health care systems), I have also seen many blaring cases of misdiagnosis, especially around Borderline Personality Disorder, including one particular case where a diagnosis was made after a ten minute phone call without taking any history of the client at all. When I initially talk to clients (especially in the US), it does seem that a lot of them have been diagnosed at some point with one of, sometimes all of the holy trinity of disorders…BPD, Bipolar or ADHD. It seems that every second person is a walking disorder. I am not saying that some of these are not correct but it does open up another bone of contention, the medication to go with the diagnosis.
Does labeling how we feel with a diagnosis make us feel better? Do we need to put a label on everything to process it? I feel that doing so may well hinder us in truly moving through difficult times in our lives.
Of course, there is testing for NPD and it can give a clear diagnosis and I get the argument that most who might have it would not get tested, preferring to believe that everyone else needs testing but not them. This, of course, suggests there is a lot of undiagnosed narcissism out there but do we have the right to label everyone who might be a bit rigid, has strong boundaries or chooses to leave a relationship, a narcissist? Is it just part of popular language culture?
There are of course, clear signs when someone has come across a potential narcissist. The best indicator is the three stages of a relationship with such a person. The early phase, adulation, is a magical time when this near perfect person enters someone’s life (it is the honeymoon phase ++!), followed by the devaluing phase (criticism, shaming, being dragged off the pedestal) and finally discard (the abandonment, ghosting or the victim sees sense). In these cases, you could possibly suggest that if that person was tested, it would come back with a clear result.
However, we never need to forget that narcissism runs on a continuum like codependency. At one end of the scale are the people who should never be anywhere near a relationship to the other where ‘healthy ‘ boundaries and quality ‘me’ time are forged together with a healthy relationship to others. I wonder just how often the two are confused. We also have the issue of the ’emotionally distant” where lines are also blurred, and here’s why.
Living with a codependent is not easy. The constant neediness and ‘return’ required where sacrifice and matrydom run their lives can be draining. Added to this, the constant use of the drama triangle to control means that codependents are difficult to deal with. We also have the concept of counter dependency that often arises as a defence against this. I wonder just how many of these people are labeled as narcissists when in fact, they are far from it. I am amazed how many times I hear as a first sentence in an initial consultation: ‘I just finished a relationship with a narcissist!’
Returning to the Path To Freedom, I have often thought of this particular word in my own situation where the reality is nothing like it. Am I reacting because of a resistance to my control methods? Most likely. Relationships with codependents go well when the codependent feels they are in control. Control for them means being the first port of call for their partner for all their needs, and I mean all. They are very often attracted to people they feel have a requirement for fixing and often people who have a control agenda of their own. However, not every codependent is with a narcissist or the other way around. Codependents often get together creating a special dynamic, that is just as dysfunctional.
The sad thing is that when relationships break up under such circumstances, it is easy to find blame in others. By labelling a previous partner, we are taking the emphasis away from our own growth path and absolving ourselves of responsibility. Codependents will self reflect but frequently only in a sense of victimhood and are very likely to repeat the mistakes within a short time with another inappropriate person. This is where the emphasis should always be placed in therapy, CODA or any other recovery programme. Codependency manifests itself as a result of a broken connection with caregivers through neglect, abuse, ineffective or shame-based parenting. The child in such an environment will learn that they must control their environment and their parents in order to feel secure and have the advantages of what should be a natural bond.
Codependents need to look at themselves and their own behavioural issues and see any partner they have as a symptom rather than the cause of their issues. Only then, can they truly see a path to recovery. Sitting around in groups blaming the ‘narcissist’ in their lives will not move them forward. Responsibility is a key word here and we are not all victims. This is the realisation I have come to in my personal life and I am taking steps to change it by focusing on me. This means awareness and action and staying present and conscious.
This is what I try to promote in therapy. While the emphasis might be at the start on protecting the client, it needs to switch quickly to core fundamentals of why things have happened. Labelling a failed relationship a narcissist-codependent dance by default, gets nobody anywhere.